WASHINGTON ― U.S. State Department officials defended Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s firing of the agency’s independent watchdog, telling angry lawmakers that it had nothing to do with a probe of U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

In a tense hearing, lawmakers questioned State Department officials over State Department Inspector General Steve Linick’s firing in May as his office was probing last year’s $8 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia, UAE and Jordan, which skirted Congress by means of an emergency declaration.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., said the committee had “real concerns” the firing was “an abuse of power,” so that Pompeo could avoid inconvenient questions about the justification for the emergency.

The comments came days after the New York Times reported that the civilian death toll from Saudi Arabia’s disastrous air war over Yemen carries a risk of American officials being charged with war crimes for approving U.S. bomb sales to the Saudis and their partners.

The testimony at an open House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing marks a shift after panel Democrats accused the Trump administration of stonewalling their investigation into Linick’s ouster and previous requests that State Department witnesses testify. Lawmakers angrily accused the State Department of withholding documents on a number of major foreign policy decisions, as well as the firing.

In the hearing, Engel accused Pompeo of trying to suppress Linick’s conclusion that the State Department did not fully assess risks and implement mitigation measures to reduce civilian casualties and legal concerns associated with the bomb sales. Congress, at the time, was holding up the sales over humanitarian concerns, prompting a protracted intra-government showdown.

“In the mad rush to get weapons out the door after Mr. Pompeo made that emergency declaration, did those questions just fall by the wayside?” Engel said. “Of course not. The emergency was declared specifically so that the department could avoid answering those questions.”

Undersecretary of State for Management Brian Bulatao and other State Department witnesses denied allegations Linick’s firing was retaliatory and emphasized the president has the executive authority to remove an IG. Pompeo has said he was unaware of Linick’s investigation into allegations Pompeo and his wife misused agency resources.

Bulatao said Linick was fired because he completed a State Department audit 60 days late, lagged in completing investigations and maintained low morale in his office. State Department officials also said they were dissatisfied with Linick’s probe into a leaks to journalists of an evaluation of a top diplomat on Iran, Brian Hook.

Democrats on the panel questioned that rationale. Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., accused the administration of creating “multiple after-the-fact reasons” for Linick’s ouster, read the definition of the word cover-up and decried civilian deaths in Yemen.

“Could this be a cover-up by the secretary and the president,” Meeks told Bulatao. “The IG was doing his job, and he was being stopped by you, the secretary of state and the president of the United States.”

Lawmakers wanted to know whether Linick told Bulatao in advance whether he wanted to ask Pompeo about conflicts of interest in the State Department or White House in the arms sale, or whether the Saudis had possibly committed war crimes. Bulatao and State Department legal adviser Marik String said Linick said either they didn’t know or weren’t provided with specific questions.

“I’m asking you what were the topics he wanted to discuss with the secretary,” said Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla, to which Bulatao responded, “He wanted to discuss the policy decisions that went into that [emergency declaration] decision.”

The panel’s top Republican, Rep. Michael McCaul, said he agreed with the Mideast arms sales and repeated Pompeo’s assertions that he didn’t know the IG was investigating him. Several Republicans on the panel accused Democrats of political motivations ahead of the November elections, and expressed support for Linick’s firing.

McCaul, of Texas, said the allegation of retribution was “mystifying” when Pompeo had no knowledge he was being investigated. “I’m glad you’re here, and I’m glad we’re going through this exercise,” he told Bulatao, “but I believe the nation has more serious business, and I believe this committee does, as well.”

Linick appeared before investigators in June and said he had opened the review at the request of lawmakers who claimed Pompeo had inappropriately circumvented Congress to approve the Saudi arms deal. But Bulatao and String, he said, tried to bully and dissuade him before he was fired, arguing the sales were a policy matter outside IG’s jurisdiction.

In the wake of the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi ― who the American intelligence community says was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Turkey under orders by the Saudi kingdom ― Congress had passed a series of measures on a bipartisan basis aimed at curbing U.S. support for Riyadh’s involvement in Yemen’s civil war. Trump vetoed the measures and the Senate failed to override.

At the hearing, Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs R. Clarke Cooper said Pompeo made the emergency certification over a combination of factors, including an increase in threatening activity by Iran and its proxies toward Saudi Arabia, and the need to respond to requests for military capabilities from allies.

Cooper said he accepted Linick’s finding that the administration could do more to prevent civilian casualties. Cooper highlighted presidential directives and an update to the U.S. Conventional Arms Transfer Policy as catalysts for process improvements, training and analytics for foreign customers of U.S. arms to prevent harm to civilians.

“We see reducing the risk of civilian harm as an enterprise-wide interagency challenge and have responded with a program of reforms and innovations,” Cooper said.

Cooper also testified he was not personally aware why Linick was removed.

Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.

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